Berlin’s music sparkles in ‘White Christmas’

By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out“)

There’s no doubt that this is a troubling time of year to be Jewish. With red and green ribbons festooning the sides of buildings and spectacular light displays at night dazzling the eyes, Jews are never more aware of how much a minority they are then during Yuletide.

Jeremy Benton (Phil) and Sean Montgomvery (Bob) play male leads in “Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas.'” (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

One area in which they can take pride is in the knowledge that some of the very best and most popular of American Christmas songs – songs that celebrate the comradery and joy of family – were written in large measure by talented Jews. The granddaddy of them all is Irving Berlin, the Russian immigrant born Israel Baline, who happened to pen the longest and best selling song of its genre, “White Christmas.”

The Jewish connection to Christmas notwithstanding, Berlin’s place in the pantheon of American songwriters is certainly at its apex. A movie originally intended to be the third pairing of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire instead turned out to be a vehicle for Crosby and Jewish funnyman Danny Kaye, “White Christmas.” 

Crosby had initially sung the popular song in the 1942 black and white Berlin feature “Holiday Inn,” which was his first film with Astaire. The song received the Academy Award for Best Song.

Kerry Conte and Kelly Sheehan portray “Sisters” Betty and Judy Haynes. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

The new Technicolor film shot in VistaVision and released by Paramount Pictures was the most popular film of 1954 and co-starred the beautiful and talented Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen as sisters Betty and Judy Haynes, the love interests of Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, played by Crosby and Kaye. 

Based on the screenplay penned by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, “Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas'” is the lastest Broadway in New Orleans offering with a book written in 2000 by David Ives and Paul Blake.

That’s probably the worst part of this musical in that it is based on a very hackneyed and predictable script taken from a movie screenplay written 63 years ago. Several references in the updated book are historically wrong such as the mention about Topo Gigio on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1954, some four years even before the character was invented, and the day of the week when Christmas Eve fell that year. 

But, after all, musicals are fantasy and they require us to suspend belief at the drop of a Christmas sack.

Second act opener “I Love a Piano.” (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

The leading stars of Sean Montgomery (Bob Wallace) and Phil Davis (Jeremy Benton) along with their female counterparts on sisters Betty Haynes (Kerry Conte) and Judy Haynes  (Kelly Sheehan) are quite good in their roles. Whether dancing and singing as a duo or leading the entire cast in songs like “I Love a Piano,” this two hours of entertainment is as sparkling and bright as any holiday ornament or adornment.

The ensemble of synchronized hoofers and tap dancers with backing chorus goes a long way to making this work a piece of holiday joy that would be delightful at any time of the year for any target audience. With the exception of the title song, this musical could have been set at most any other time of year. Even the song “Snow” was a castoff from Berlin that he brought back for the film. 

It’s really a love story or, perhaps, two love stories for two couples. But it’s not just a boys meet girls story. The songs are for the most part love ballads like “Love and the Weather,” “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing: and “How Deep is the Ocean.” Add into the exciting mix several fantasy dance sequences with impressive sets and expressive lighting like in “I Love a Piano” and “Blue Skies” and there is no doubt that the shallowness of the book can easily be overlooked.

Bella Yantis (Susan) with Conrad John Schuck (General Henry Waverly) and Karen Ziemba (Martha Watson). (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

Of special interest to local theatergoers are two long-established Broadway and TV stars found in the cast. Broadway veteran Karen Ziemba, who was recently seen in “Prince of Broadway” in five different roles is cast as Martha Watson, the love interest of “The Old Man,” General Waverly. He is played by Conrad John Schuck, who toured as Daddy Warbucks in a national tour of “Annie” and was a replacement in the original cast, but who has enjoyed a TV career with supporting roles on “Macmillan and Wife,” “Law and Order” and “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” as well as special roles in “Star Trek” franchises and movies as well as in “Babylon Five.” Shuck famously starred in Robert Altman’s film “M*A*S*H,” as the dentist, the Painless Pole, who contemplates suicide and famously uttered the first f-bomb on screen.

Directed and choreographed by Randy Skinner, this is a Broadway musical throwback of a type rarely seen on present-day Broadway (last year’s “Holiday Inn” being the exception). But it doesn’t take much to understand why it succeeds with songs that date back to Tin Pan Alley and a movie that is a little more than six decades old. 

People want to be entertained and Berlin’s music along with brilliant costumes and perfectly executed orchestrations and choreography make this perfect fare for the holiday along with figgy pudding. And as a minority living within a religiously diverse culture, Jews can take pride and pleasure that one of their own has left a lasting legacy to the holiday that even they can enjoy.

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas’” continues playing at the Saenger Theatre, 1111 Canal Street, with evening performances tonight, Friday, and tomorrow, Saturday, at 8:00 p.m. Saturday matinee is at 2:00 p.m. The final performance on Sunday is at 1:00 p.m.  For more information call 504-525-1025 or click here for ticket information.




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